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Southern dishes add spice to meetings

Courtesy Houmas House Plantation

There’s no way to slurp oysters elbow to elbow and not get to know the slurper next to you a little bit better. Oysters are plentiful in the South Carolina Low County, and an oyster roast at Palmetto Bluff Resort in Bluffton can bring attendees together for good food and good times at the end of a meeting day.

Eating local food can help groups get to know the personality of a Southern destination and provide a bit of fun, too. Attendees in Greenwood,  Miss., for example, can learn how to whip up fried chicken, gravy and greens at the Viking Cooking School.

“As a Southerner, I can tell you that food is one of our top priorities,” said Becky Thompson, general manager of the Viking Cooking School. “We in the Delta love to socialize, and food provides us with a way of socializing and offering hospitality.”

On the other hand, Louisiana offers the opportunity to sample foods not likely to be encountered many other places.

“In Louisiana we have an abundance of great cooks and chefs who are good at utilizing the unusual resources available here, like alligator, crayfish and the bounty of the Gulf — oysters, shrimp and fish,” said James Hutchinson, assistant secretary in the Louisiana Office of Tourism. “Through the years, they’ve developed methods of preparing indigenous foods that have made Louisiana a terrific eating destination. Lots of other places, an evening will be dinner and theater. Here, eating out is the entertainment.”

Here are tantalizing tastes of some Southern destinations.

Southern vituals the Viking way
More than 25 years ago in Greenwood, the Viking Range Corp. began manufacturing its professional-style stoves for home kitchens. Greenwood’s Viking Hospitality Group includes two manufacturing facilities; the 50-room Alluvian Hotel and Spa; a bakery; and the Viking Cooking School, where team building can turn tasty.

“Making a big dinner together teaches people how to work as a team,” said Thompson. “Each one has a specific job to do, but the group has to come together to get the meal done. They have to pay attention, because we teach them new techniques. They always have fun.”

During cooking demonstrations, chefs whip up a meal while onlookers sip wine and later enjoy the results.

A hands-on experience for groups of up to 25 puts meeting attendees in the kitchen, where the Viking staff preps ingredients and provides a menu. The group is split into teams, each makes different dishes, and all come together to relish their culinary creations, accompanied by wine.

“Nowadays, many people don’t cook at home like they used to,” Thompson said. “So they don’t know the basics. We have wonderful classes, like basic knife skills and how to make rice.”

Some classes combine cooking with the Delta’s blues tradition — after all, Mississippi is the home of B.B. King and other well-known musicians. During Delta, Dinner and Blues, groups cook pecan-crusted catfish while they are serenaded by a blues musician; they fry chicken, stir gravy and bake cornbread and banana pudding during a class called Southern Cooking.



Kentucky spirits lift a meeting

Kentucky’ distills about 95 percent of the world’s bourbon, and its cooks incorporate the beverage into recipes that keep visitors returning for more.

Two central Kentucky distilleries welcome groups for meetings, distillery tours, bourbon tastings and bourbon-infused fare.

In Bluegrass horse country near Versailles, Woodford Reserve’s pastoral setting allows visitors to sit in rocking chairs on a wide porch and inhale bourbon and mash aromas.

“Having a meeting at a distillery is the ultimate Kentucky experience,” said Kandi Sackett, guest services manager. “You have all the amenities of a hotel but in a gorgeous natural setting with complimentary tours, engraved bourbon bottles as attendee gifts and team-building options of cooking classes and fly-fishing, after which you eat your fish with a little bourbon on the side.”

Private groups can feast at a Distiller’s Table of five or six courses, all paired with wine or bourbon, that features entrees such as duck brined in bourbon and slow smoked over bourbon barrel staves.

Another option is a food-pairing with Woodford Reserve, the premium spirit produced there.

“We want our food, most of which is locally produced, to match our bourbon,” said chef-in-residence Ouita Michel. “In pairings, each person gets a plate with foods representing a flavor aspect of Woodford Reserve, such as chocolate and dried hazelnuts, and tastes each with bourbon. You learn how to be thoughtful in what you’re eating and drinking.”

Groups learn about distillation and bourbon history during customized tours at Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort.

Dianna Spina, vice president of education for the Bluegrass Chapter of Meeting Professionals International, planned a July meeting for 70 at the distillery’s Elmer T. Lee Clubhouse, named for the distillery’s 91-year-old master distiller emeritus, who visits weekly to taste-test the bourbon that bears his name. Built of 200-year-old logs, the two-story clubhouse accommodates groups of 30 to 200.

Spina’s group began with a working session. “Then we segued into hors d’oeuvres, bourbon specialty drinks and an awesome meal of bourbon-infused pork,” she said.

Some took a distillery tour, which includes bourbon balls — chocolates with bourbon-laced-cream centers that are topped with bourbon-soaked pecans.


Chattanooga chew-chew
In Chattanooga, Tenn., eating green isn’t just about salads. Within the last five years, the city’s restaurants and caterers have embraced the use of local produce and meats in a big way. Even the convention center, one of the top 10 green convention centers in the country, is using homegrown foods.

“Our convention center has partnered with a grower 40 miles outside the city — Mayfield Farms — which has devoted land specifically to growing food for the center,” said Steve Genovesi, vice president of sales and marketing for the Chattanooga CVB. “We understand ours to be the only convention center that can provide locally grown fruits and vegetables in season and locally baked breads.”

On the restaurant side, a number have joined 212 Market and St. John’s Restaurant in the move to buy local.

In a renovated early-20th-century hotel and brothel, St. John’s Restaurant/Meeting Place is home to Chattanooga native and chef/owner Daniel Lindley’s simple yet innovative cuisine, five blocks from the 312,000-square-foot convention center and 341-room Marriott at the Convention Center.

Lindley is a James Beard Award nominee for Best Chef in the Southeast for the second consecutive year.

“Though we have a heavy emphasis on French technique and cooking, our primary goal is to use regional and local ingredients. It’s a nice surprise for visitors,” he said.

Especially in the summer, the restaurant uses at least 75 percent local produce.

The menu changes daily based on Lindley’s daily conversations with farmer suppliers, and knowledgeable wait staff can discuss farm sources with diners.

St. John’s and other downtown eateries can combine forces for a dine-around, preceded by a kickoff reception at the Hunter Museum of Art, on a bluff above the city.

Although green’s the scene in Chattanooga, the city is the home of Moon Pies and Little Debbie snack cakes, which are mainstays in attendees’ welcome boxes.


West Virginia ramps up meetings
A stop at Tamarack, off Interstate 77 in Beckley, W.Va., sums up West Virginia’s gastronomic personality.

Tamarack showcases the work of West Virginians. Shaped like a starburst quilt, the 59,000-square-foot building is stocked with everything from juried arts and crafts to jellies and jams, all made by the state’s citizens.

There’s also a restaurant managed by the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs that serves pan-fried West Virginia rainbow trout, braised greens and bread pudding with cinnamon sauce.

Tamarack’s 12,000-square-foot conference center adheres to Greenbrier standards. Catering is in house, and attendee gift baskets burgeon with West Virginia goodies.

“All products approved by the state Department of Agriculture are juried in,” said Cindy Whitlock, marketing director, “so the possibilities are endless.”

Theme baskets include Good Morning, with breakfast items; Pasta Night, with homemade pastas and sauces; and Pet Lovers, with homemade dog biscuits. There are even candy outhouses.

West Virginia food is also the focus at native son and chef Brian Ball’s three restaurants on Snowshoe Mountain, a ski resort about 170 miles northeast of Charleston.

“When people come to the mountains of West Virginia, they want to taste our regional flavors,” he said. “Over the years, I’ve developed a network of artisan cheese makers, farmers, honey mongers, mushroom growers. We incorporate as much local as we can into our menu during the growing season.”

In his upscale eatery, Ember, private dining spaces called pods accommodate 30 people each.

Hearth is Ball’s Appalachian-forest-theme, candlelit private club; it crowns Soaring Eagle Lodge, an 8,000-square-foot meeting space with two fireplaces and 40-mile mountain views from more than 50 windows.

Ball frequents farmers markets; uses local beef, lamb and trout; and has been known to fuse Asian dishes with West Virginia flavors to “give it a beautiful fusion spin.” In the spring, he serves ramps, a cousin of the onion.


Belly up to the bayou

Few places have more culinary entertainment to offer than Houmas House Plantation, which in 2009 garnered Louisiana Attraction of the Year and also served as the location of the “Top Chef” television show’s final cookoff.

Its columned mansion is among the Greek-revival homes built by sugar planters along the Great Mississippi River Road, a 70-mile corridor along both banks of the river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

Under current owner Kevin Kelly, the plantation, 60 miles west of New Orleans in Darrow, La., has become a meeting place extraordinaire, with three restaurants — six dining rooms in all — and two wine cellars, one for red and one for white.

Gathering spots include a 5,000-square-foot pavilion, a 2,500-square-foot ballroom that houses a Civil War-era submarine; a walled garden with a circular water-lily pond; and a seven-acre lawn with a live-oak allee where 250 people can dine at one long table.

One busy kitchen under award-winning executive chef Jeremy Langlois serves every venue.
“We serve Nouvelle Louisiana Creole cuisine,” said Kelly. “Louisiana food is different than New Orleans food, which is very French. Ours is a more contemporary version of French Creole, lighter, with tastier, healthier sauces, served on duck, crawfish and seafood.”

Esquire magazine voted Langlois’ Bisque of Curried Pumpkin, Crawfish and Corn the top soup in the country. The soup can become part of a seven-course Louisiana tasting menu.

Built in 1828, the 22-room mansion hosts one-day corporate retreats; soon the plantation will accommodate overnight guests.

“Houmas House is alive and invigorating,” Kelly said. “It’s the way the South was meant to be.”


Southeast Tourism Society Meeting Guide

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Southern dishes add spice to meetings
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